It’s been less than a year since I moved to the so-called ‘posh’ locale of Zamzama Boulevard in Defence, Karachi. Known to be the local hub of elitist designer shops, boutiques, salons and upscale cafés, its property value is touted to be one of the highest in the city for commercial businesses.
Before moving here to reside, I would only visit it to shop at quaint, elaborately-decorated enclaves boasting high-quality products and even more exorbitant price-tags, or to dine at famous cafés with friends; most notably, at the vintage Copper Kettle or the steak-house, Arizona Grill.
Moving here to reside has been a totally different experience! For starters, despite it’s notoriety for being one of the city’s ‘upscale’ localities, it is only so as far as the shops and commercial centers are concerned.
For residential living, the cramped apartments are a far cry from anything even remotely luxurious (this entire narrative does not include Mall Square, mind you).
Each “commercial lane” has two parts – the major lane that houses the entrances to all it’s shops (and hence the name “commercial” lane), and the back-lane or “chotti gali”, which is not marked by any board. The latter lane is too narrow for even a large vehicle to pass through, and is interspersed with dangerous, open manholes. Entrances to most apartment buildings are, unfortunately, from these “chotti gali’s” or dirt roads – which are not even tarred or cemented.
Hence, anyone who’d want to visit a resident, would have to be explained the route to the apartment tediously, mostly by landmark shops at street- corners, because the building-numbers are also not legibly printed on the entrances. That person would have a further problem finding a suitable parking space for their vehicle. To further add to their turmoil, they’d have to hip-hop through leaking sewers, dumps of strewn trash, and lounging packs of wild dogs, to reach the apartment-building entrance. Since the back lanes have no street-lights to illuminate them, this entire process would be even more difficult at night.
For women like me, the challenge of reaching one’s apartment late at night after a dinner or wedding is intensified because of the array of shady characters patrolling the streets then. From the abaya-clad streetwalkers to the cigarette-smoking teenaged lads lurking mysteriously at street corners, to the groups of chai-wala and tandoor-wala Pathan’s that keep their “hotels” open till the wee hours (in order to service their not-so-rich clientele of laborers, beggars, janitors and drivers), this “posh” area definitely reeks insecurity and eeriness after 11 p.m.
The paradox is further intensified by the stark contrast of people found on the other side of the same lanes – on the bustling, main commercial ones, you’ll find groups of youngsters in laughing, chattering hordes, dressed to kill outside expensive eateries, alighting from fancy, music-booming cars. Outside the gaming areas, you’ll see young boys and men of all ages and shapes, hanging out and puffing on cigarettes. During the day-time, you’ll see the haute-couture-clad mummies with their tots in tow, alighting from the famed beauty salons, boutiques and chappal stores on Zamzama.
There is no dearth of hustle-bustle on Zamzama Boulevard. For residents, though, that means there is no peace and calm, except during the night. Even then, one’s slumber is disrupted by the barking and howling of the “carnivorous packs” that become active at night. The hoot of the night-man’s whistle as he solitarily patrols the streets is sometimes interjected with the screeching of tires and the honking of horns as a random cars cruises by.
Most of the commercial-building apartments on Zamzama have been rented out to businesses, which have converted them into offices. On the other hand, ironically, you’ll still find many families residing here since several years. Due to the lack of space, they hang their laundry from precariously-dangling strings outside their windows, amid the tangled webs of telephone and cable wires. On the side of the famous Zamzama Park, at around midday, one can see crowds of children emerging from the Government schools along the road. Simultaneously, abaya-clad young women emerge from the Madrassah Saeediyah that lies adjacent to the grand Zamzama Mosque. The orange suit-clad janitors of Defence sweep the roads and collect trash at around the same time, just as the market-place yawns, stretches and gets ready to start its business for the day.
The cheap labor that serves this posh locale is obtained from the nearby Neelum Colony. From the house-maids to the young lads who clean cars for menial wages, to the sweepers and construction-workers deployed night and day in building more commercial structures in the remaining nooks of Zamzama Boulevard, one is at times appalled to note the heart-wrenching poverty that drives these white-collar laborers form their homes each morning. Sitting next to trash-dumps, the barefoot toddlers and munchkins can be seen sifting through the debris for useful scraps. In the scorching heat of mid-afternoon, one sees emaciated people lying outside the boundary walls of Zamzama Park, on a bed of concrete, only a few feet away from whizzing fast cars, lost in deep sleep and oblivious to the risk to their lives from the nearby traffic. Further down, one sees families of paupers, two young parents and a pack of scrawny kids each, perched on the pavement and making do with a few slivers of roti and semi-filled bottles of water. Hand-to-mouth poverty, anyone?
The water situation for apartment-residents is, not surprisingly, miserable. Bought tankers and donkey-cart tanks are the standard means of supplying water to homes. If one or more apartment-units in a building fail to promptly make the monthly payment, the remaining, paying customers get to live without water in their taps for a few days. Since the overhead tank is a common one, tenants in rented apartments generously invite their friends and relatives to cohabit a bit too often, cashing in on the ‘ample’ water-tank above by washing the entire clan’s laundry each day, leaving the remaining permanent residents without water even for one family’s laundry load.
After knowing all this, now the readers can see why a scornful expression appears on my face when I give the one-word response of “Zamzama” to people when they ask me: “Where do you live?” and receive excited exclamations of: “Lucky you! You’re near all the ‘cool’ places in Karachi!” I find it so ironic that residing in this so-called “posh” area has, conversely, taught me the sheer value of the most basic amenities of life, such as water, security, open space, cleanliness, peace of mind, and a familial neighborhood.